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Credit: Rick Madonik

Transport

Telepresence

A staff member from PricewaterhouseCoopers in Toronto, waving to a team member from Prague. The mobile, two-wheeled scooter can travel around the office so that the staff member from Prague can converse and meet with other people in the Toronto office at will.

Nothing beats face-to-face contact, but telepresence aims to come exceptionally close. By integrating a set of high-performance visual, audio, and network technologies and services, people who are geographically separated can interact in a way that captures many of the best aspects of an in-person experience.

When it is possible to exist and function remotely, the need to travel becomes less necessary. In a world of global-business footprints and international collaboration, if people can work together without being in the same place, they can dodge a host of travel-related emissions.

Telepresence now comes to life in a variety of ways and a diversity of settings. From companies and schools to hospitals and museums, virtual interaction is opening new possibilities. Using a mobile telepresence robot, a surgeon can advise on a rare procedure in real time, without traveling from Austin to Amman, for example. Or, executives in telepresence conference rooms in Sydney and Singapore can debate a possible acquisition without taking a single flight.

Telepresence affords many other benefits: cost savings from avoided travel, less grueling schedules for employees, more productive remote meetings, the ability to make decisions more quickly, and enhanced interpersonal connection across geographies.

References

Robert Heinlein…idea of telepresence: Heinlein, Robert A. Waldo & Magic, Inc. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1950.

Marvin Minsky… coined the term: Minsky, Marvin. “Telepresence.” OMNI Magazine. June 1980.

 [potential to] cut…emissions: Lee, Lisa, and Antonin Shanahan. The Telepresence Revolution. London: Carbon Disclosure Project, 2010.

Payback…one to two years: Lee and Shanahan, Revolution.

view all book references

Technical Summary

Telepresence

Project Drawdown defines telepresence as: replacing flying for business meetings with telepresence technologies. This solution replaces airplane travel for business.

Air transportation represents around 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, at more than 700 million tons annually. A significant part of this is from business air travel: air travel over 1500 kilometers has no practical alternative mode of transport. Since its introduction in the 1970s, telepresence has become an increasingly attractive tool for remote collaboration and business meetings, and is now an effective alternative to flying for business meetings.

Telepresence solutions include a variety of video systems, such as: high-end immersive telepresence, multipurpose-room systems, desktop systems, videophones, and cloud-based software systems. The global market for such solutions has grown from $2.2 billion in 2010 to $3.3 billion in 2014 (IHS/Infonetics, 2015), with a tendency to move from high-end hardware systems to cloud-based and software-centric systems. A survey conducted by Redshift Research (TMC, 2013) on more than 1200 business decision-makers has found that, as of 2013, videoconferencing was ranked as the third most preferred tool for business communication.

Methodology

This study models several adoption scenarios over 2020-2050, and compares telepresence adoption to air travel.

Total Addressable Market [1]

Using the passenger-kilometers avoided through videoconferencing as a functional measure, this analysis takes into account the global projections in air business travel to arrive at the total addressable market. Current adoption [2] is based on the total number of active videoconferencing users using our estimate of 10.8 million hardware-based (like immersive videoconferencing rooms) and software-based installations (such as Skype or Zoom) worldwide. Future growth is projected by fitting Bass Diffusion curves [3] to the 2050 adoption estimates from six sources, [4] which estimate the percent of business air trips that may be replaced by telepresence.

Adoption Scenarios [5]

Impacts of increased adoption of telepresence from 2020-2050 were generated based on three growth scenarios, which were assessed in comparison to a Reference Scenario where telepresence usage grows at the same rate as the business air travel market.

  • Plausible Scenario: Using the average of the sources, adoption in 2050 is estimated at 16 percent of global air business travel.
  • Drawdown Scenario: Adoption in 2050 is aligned with the maximum of the sources: 30 percent of global air business travel.
  • Optimum Scenario: It is assumed that 50 percent is the largest fraction of business aviation trips that may be replaced with high-quality telepresence.

Emissions Model

Emissions from aviation are extensively studied, with data from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) used to ensure alignment with other solution models. Emissions from telepresence come mainly from grid usage (also weighted by system type) and indirect emissions from production.

Financial Model

Costs for adoption of telepresence were averaged by the market shares of each system type, including hardware-based and software-based systems. These costs were normalized for the estimated number of users each system type may have, and a learning rate of 15 percent was applied. This rate was based on the assumption that most of the installation costs would come from upgrading network connectivity to be able to provide the quality needed. The cost of a 100 Mbps Fast Ethernet LAN card was used as a proxy for this and, using price data from the US Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, we estimated the learning rate.

The conventional alternative of air travel has no first costs, but the operating costs were taken as the cost per passenger-kilometer of business travel. [6] We estimated the average short-haul and long-haul trip distance based on data on the most popular business travel routes. [7] These trip lengths were used to normalize the trip costs per passenger-kilometer. The operating cost for telepresence systems was estimated from broadband internet costs and maintenance.

Integration [8]

Limited adjustments are required for integration, since this solution is relatively independent from the others. Total demand (i.e. passenger-kilometers avoided) did not exceed total non-urban travel predicted. The additional demand on the electricity grid resulting from the growth of telepresence was accounted for in the integrated total market for electricity. To avoid double-counting emissions benefits, the results presented for telepresence do not reflect the increasingly cleaner grid; instead, the additional emissions benefits are accounted for directly in the supply-side energy solutions.

Results

The Plausible Scenario results in a 2 gigaton reduction in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions with US$1.3 billion [9] in savings, representing more than a 16 percent reduction in business-related air passenger transport. In addition, our analysis indicates that replacing travel with telepresence can potentially save up to 69 billion hours of productivity that would otherwise be lost during this period. The Drawdown Scenario shows an avoidance of 7.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions (and 115 billion fewer unproductive hours). Finally, the Optimum Scenario indicates an emissions savings of 17 gigatons.

Discussion

Implicit in our aggressive growth projections is the assumption that telepresence quality can be high enough to allow the kind of business interaction that face-to-face meetings allow. For very important meetings, subtle cues and communication are key; currently, much of this nonverbal communication is lost in videoconferencing. Virtual reality and augmented reality are technologies that can potentially improve the quality of electronic communication; with the rapid advances observed in the market, we believe that the kinds of adoption shown in this work are possible. However, they will require commitment from top management, resource support, and clear company policies on travel reduction. Considering that the financial results shown can be attractive to companies, even more so if the reduction in unproductive travel hours is included, investing in enterprise-wide videoconferencing solutions is one of the most cost-effective ways for companies to both cut carbon emissions and improve employee productivity.


[1] For more on the Total Addressable Market for the Transport Sector, click the Sector Summary: Transport link below.

[2] Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand supplied by the solution in the base year of study. This study uses 2014 as the base year due to the availability of global adoption data for all Project Drawdown solutions evaluated.

[3] The Bass Diffusion model is a differential model of how new products get adopted into a population, and is commonly used for technology adoption.

[4] E.g., UK’s Committee on Climate Change and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

[5] For more on Project Drawdown’s three growth scenarios, click the Scenarios link below. For information on Transport Sector-specific scenarios, click the Sector Summary: Transport link.

[6] Including ticket, ground transport, hotel, and per diem costs.

[7] The top short-haul was listed as Tokyo-Sapporo, and the top long-haul was listed as London-New York.

[8] For more on Project Drawdown’s Transport Sector integration model, click the Sector Summary: Transport link below.

[9] All monetary values are presented in US2014$.

Full models and technical reports coming in late 2017.

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